For over forty years, Sir Michael Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College in London, has been monitoring the health of 28,000 workers – people who all work at “Whitehall,” the citadel of Great Britain’s civil service.

Seeking to determine if professional rank influences workplace stress, Marmot found Whitehall ideal for his study because all of his subjects worked in the same environment and in jobs that were ranked in a precise hierarchy. In other words, there were few variables which affected Whitehall employees other than their rank.

If you’re inclined to believe that people higher up in an organization – people in leadership roles with much greater degrees of responsibility – are likely to suffer the greatest workplace stress, Marmot has proved conclusively otherwise.

Instead, people whose jobs fall lowest on the totem pole suffer more serious stress-related consequences. They’re far more likely to experience heart disease and weak immune systems – and their life expectancy is also well below average. Men in the lowest job grade (messengers and door keepers), in fact, were shown to have mortality rates three times that of men in the highest administrative ranks.

According to Marmot, the degree of stress we all suffer in our jobs is directly – and linearly – related to where our roles fall on company’s organization chart. The higher our degree of responsibility, the less stress we suffer.

“How can this be?” you may be asking.

According to Marmot, the explanation is simple. People whose jobs rank lowest tend to have the least amount of control over their workday lives. Said another way, the amount of control one has at work is directly related to their rung on the corporate ladder.

And here’s where Marmot’s research encourages us to lead more from our hearts. He discovered that the antidote to workplace stress is giving employees more control in their jobs. Not surprisingly, the Whitehall study found that when people are treated better – empowered to contribute, given more participation in work decisions and valued for their contributions, illness goes down.

After dedicating his life to this research, Marmot is quite passionate in telling managers how to most effectively lessen employee stress: “Give people more involvement in their work, more say in what they’re doing, more reward for the effort they put out and it might well be you’ll not only have a much healthier workplace, but a more productive workplace as well.”[1] Marmot believes our collectively leading more this way will allow more people to be fulfilled by their work and to “flourish.”

And one more compelling insight from the study: by doing things to reduce the stress in others, we very naturally reduce our own. It turns out that compassion and caring for others are the most important factors to promoting our longevity. Such actions of the heart keep our cells healthy and regenerating. Connecting with and helping others leads us to mend ourselves and, perhaps, to live longer, happier and healthier lives.

[1] Stress: Portrait of a Killer. National Geographic special, 2008.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.